I offered the same opinion myself in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, so I find David Rieff’s argument very persuasive. So much so that I have posted about it before.
In his new book, In Praise of Forgetting, Rieff essays to free us from the notion, made famous by George Santayana, that if we forget the past we are condemned to repeat it. By implication, if we remember the past we are freed from the curse that would make us repeat it.
Beyond the fact, as Rieff argues, that our memory of the past is mostly mythmaking, it is also true, as I have argued, that the past never really repeats itself in exactly the same way. Thus, being preoccupied with the past must in fact blind you to the present.
Generations of psychotherapists, from various schools of psychotherapy, have happily sold the notion that recovering or reinterpreting or reconstructing the past will free you from its burdens. The truth, however, is that getting mired in the past is more likely to make you dysfunctional in the present. It will blind you to the specific details of today’s reality and make the situation more difficult to deal with.
Besides, just because have figured out how not to make the same mistake again in no way prevents you from making a different, even worse mistake. Knowing what not to do does not tell you what to do.
In the meantime, a few words from Rieff:
I truly don’t understand—I’m not being disingenuous or rhetorical—I don’t understand how people got it into their heads that [knowing about] the crimes of the past provides some kind of prophylactic against crimes committed in the present. I see literally no basis for that. I think this is an exercise in mass wishful thinking. If we’re talking about intervention, if the idea is if there’s a genocide and if you remember the genocides of the past you’ll know to intervene in the present—that’s very nice, but in fact we don’t really know how to intervene. We don’t know what to do! The one time we’ve actually intervened in modern times on that basis, after in 2005 the UN passed this Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which in very limited and specific cases authorized international intervention to stop mass atrocities and genocide and such things, was Libya [in 2011]. It seems to me that intervention there made things exponentially worse, as I think even a lot of the people who supported it at the time would now admit. And nobody knows what to do with Syria.